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Texas tough: Dempsey's upbringing in Naco-nowhere led to U.S. dream

NACOGDOCHES, Texas -- Soccer makes Victor Rivera sick, and this is a man who once made sure that every minute he wasn't selling tacos he was coaching soccer, and when he wasn't coaching soccer he was watching it, and when he wasn't watching it he was playing it -- that is when his bones, lungs and middle-aged body would allow. But not now. These days there's only one condition when the sport doesn't hurt so much: when the boy he once affectionately called one of his bolillos (his white ones) takes the field -- something Clint Dempsey will do when the U.S. plays England on Saturday in the World Cup.

Dempsey bounced into Rivera's life and started raiding his fridge in 1995, not long after Rivera's teenage sons, Victor Jr. and Franky, moved 140 miles north of Houston from Chicago, where they had been living with their mom. "Are you going to make some chicken quesadillas, Pa," 12-year-old Clint would sometimes ask, peeking around the refrigerator door as Rivera returned home from a day's work at the family's taqueria. Clint had found a second home here, next to the expanse of grass where the boys dropped shoes and t-shirts as makeshift goals and played hours and hours of the beautiful game. So what if three tree stumps were in the middle of their field? They'd make them defenders.

While Clint dominated with his footwork, Victor Jr. countered with his speed. When Franky once slipped by Clint's little brother, Lance, for a game-winning goal, Clint turned around, pushed his brother and yelled, "Why did you let him score?" Rivera couldn't help but peek in on these games. Intense? Yes. Even with flip-flops on the grass as goal posts. But was it enough? He didn't think so. He'd grown up playing rough-and-tumble in his hometown of Zamora, Mexico, and knew that getting better meant getting beat -- and not just by each other. Thus began the remarkable journey in which a a kid from Naco-nowhere (the name some use to deride the East Texas town) would one day land on the game's biggest and grandest stage.

Dempsey grew up in a town in which the Hispanic immigrant kids would tell stories of men with fantastic names, like El Magico from El Salvador and Argentina's Maradona. When the East Texas sun beat the boys down on the pitch, they'd retreat to their friends' trailers to grab popsicles and wolf down Salvadoran pupusas. There they'd watch as their friends' fathers and uncles gathered 'round, beers in hands, screaming at a soccer game on the Spanish channel.

Dempsey's big brother, Ryan (five years his elder), pestered a family friend into letting him play on a team in a nearby Mexican League, and where Ryan went, Clint followed. He watched Ryan head in goals against men twice his age through the thick of smoke from the grills cooking fajitas. Fans lined the field, merchants, too, selling paletas from their hand-pushed carts with bells on them and horchata. "When you'd go to Mexican League it's not like you're just going to a game. It's like a party," Clint would later recall.

Organizers looking to build an offshoot of the Mexican League in Nacogdoches told Rivera, no. Absolutely not. Though they were looking for teams, he didn't need to bring a group of 14- and 15-year-old kids to play with the grown-ups. "Do you want to get them killed?" one organizer asked.

"Trust me," Rivera told them. "I know the kids and I know how they play. You're the ones who are going to get hurt."

He eventually recruited enough adults to please the organizers but was intent on getting Victor Jr. and Dempsey into games. They played at fields -- more like dirt plains interrupted by the thickets of grass -- with names like Under the Bridge, because of the South St. overpass in the distance, and Las Joyas (the Jewels), because the field had stadium lights that shined like diamonds in the Saturday night sky.

Victor Jr. and Dempsey had just started high school, and while they were skilled, they were going against men twice their age and some double their size. A handful had played in the Mexican professional ranks with teams like the Pumas in the Primera Division before injuries or economics sent them northbound, looking for work. They didn't know what to make of these boys and tip-toed around them that first game, even if the 6-0 drubbing that Victor Sr. recalls didn't reflect it.

The boys left the field downtrodden, discouraged. "You're learning, right?" Victor Sr. told his crew. "Remember that you're faster than them." Dempsey, unafraid, undaunted, ran the field, setting up plays he knew Victor Jr. would finish. Their team drew closer in the second game and lost the third by just one goal. It won the next game, and the next, and suddenly the opposition that once tiptoed around the boys pushed, elbowed and kicked them like they would've any other opponent. Except Dempsey. He had it worse.

"People went out to hurt him," says Alex Romero, an El Salvador player many around the league feel could have played on his country's national team if life had dealt him a different hand. Victor Jr. also flustered his opponents but scored with the straight speed. He may have scored on opponents but Dempsey embarrassed them, sometimes with a mean stepover and other moves he'd collected all those years watching Spanish-language soccer broadcasts with Ryan. Dempsey would score a goal and run around the perimeter of the field, looking at the fans, yelling "Whaaaaaaaaaat's uuuuuuuuuuup?"

His mother, Debbie, sat on the sidelines as he ran around in celebration, wishing under her breath, "Please, come back. Don't be doing that. You're going to be killed."

The more Dempsey dominated, the harder his opponents fouled him. Debbie, a nurse in Nacogdoches, had been called in to surgery occasionally when men with strips of cardboard tucked into their socks for shin guards ambled into the hospital with broken ankles and legs caused in the relentless league.

Over the years, she and her husband, Aubrey, a railroad worker, had scrimped to raise the thousands of dollars Clint needed to play in select soccer leagues 200 miles away in Dallas. They eventually bought a 16-foot-camper to nix the hotel bills they would have had to ring up staying in Dallas and all the other outposts where the select teams played. Debbie visited her loan officer so many times to squeeze out just a little ... bit ... more for Clint's uniforms and travel money that he began lecturing her on how to manage her money.

And after playing in Dallas all day in a traditional American select soccer system, Clint would dash off in the evening to play Mexican League, where opponents side tackled him -- cleats up -- and on at least one occasion spit in his face. "Why do you have to do all these fancy tricks," the man who spit asked Clint in Spanish. And if any player jumped up to fight Clint, Victor Jr., like always, was there to help.

Once Clint and Victor Jr. led Zamora to the Nacogdoches Mexican League's first championship, Debbie and Aubrey pulled the plug. "The next year they weren't going to let those 16-year-old boys win," Aubrey said. Besides, all the money and miles the Dempsey poured into showcasing Clint in the select leagues was starting to pay off. Letters from schools like Notre Dame, SMU and scores of others started crowding the mailbox. Did Clint really want to risk injury in a Mexican League game?

The boys had already steeled themselves the way Victor Sr. hoped. Now it was Clint recruiting Victor Jr. to play on his team in Dallas. Making the cutthroat club was no problem for Victor Jr., but making the payments was. Even a scholarship to defray the $2,000 or so in club fees wasn't enough to bridge the budget gap between what single-parent Victor Sr. wanted to do and was able to do. After just one year of club soccer -- the place where all the college coaches could see you -- Victor Jr. left the team.

"That killed my brother," Franky says. Victor Jr. made the best of it and joined an elite club in Nacogdoches, but college recruiters didn't travel that way. While Clint waded through offers from top Division I programs before deciding on Furman University, where the U.S.'s Under-20 player Ricardo Clark played, Victor, Jr., Nacogdoches High's leading scorer, was all talent and few offers. It looked like Division II Ouachita Baptist in Arkansas was his only way.

Clint would always tell his family that success is largely about being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes the inverse of that is true, too -- that tragedy is sometimes all about the wrong time, wrong place.

A U.S. National Team coach checking up on Clark at a Furman game couldn't help but notice the creative, innovative play of Dempsey. Shortly thereafter, Clint received a call-up to the U.S. National Team's U-20 team while Victor Jr. received a call of his own. Back to Nacogdoches. His girlfriend was pregnant. Clint then began running the baselines for the country while Victor Jr. left school to work the factory lines at Nibco, a Nacogdoches manufacturer. Clint embraced his possibilities. Victor Jr. tended to his responsibilities.

Victor Jr. still held out hope, attending what he thought was an MLS tryout in Houston. It was more like a scam preying on Latin American hopefuls willing to scrap together $100 for a chance to live their ultimate dream as a professional soccer player. Franky says Clint told him he would try to get Victor Jr. a tryout with the New England Revolution, the MLS team that picked him with the eighth pick in the 2004 draft.

For Victor Jr., though, bills needed paying, diapers needed changing. He went to the police academy, figuring he would chase bad guys as a cop rather than brilliant passes from Clint. He had to play the pass life gave him.

On Sept. 5, 2005, the U.S. men's national team was fresh off a 2-0 win over Mexico and had just punched its ticket to Germany for the 2006 World Cup. Later that day, then-national team coach Bruce Arena would publicly name Clint to the national team roster playing in Guatemala two days later. Back in Nacogdoches, Victor Jr. took a group of visiting cousins target shooting. "What happened" was as about as improbable as a kid from Naco-nowhere taking two touches in the final minutes of a Europa League round of 16 game last March, against Italy's Juventus, with his back against the goal, angling to the sideline, before chipping the ball 20 yards away into the Juventus goal in what would be described as the biggest goal by an American in Europe. Just as physics determined the shot, speed, and trajectory of Clint's goal, so too did those same principles determine how and when -- at least as the police believe -- Victor Jr.'s ear plug fell out. And as he reached down to grab it, the gun went off. The bullet hit him the head, police say.

***

Eighty-two cars followed Victor Jr.'s hearse to the cemetery. Victor Sr. buried his son. Franky buried his brother. Both buried their sport. Watching, hearing, even thinking of soccer hurt too much.

All of Victor Jr.'s trophies -- including the one 1998 Mexican League Championship -- line a set of shelves in the Rivera's garage. There's a soccer tournament held in Victor Jr.'s name every year. Seven years after the accident, Franky still can't bring himself to play. However, on June 12, the Riveras will tune in and watch Clint play. "Clint keeps soccer alive for us," Franky, now 25, says. In some ways, Victor Sr. says he doesn't even need to really watch when Clint plays. "I know where the ball's going to go, where Clint's gonna pass it. I just imagine where Victor would have gone and there it goes."

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